Jillian Michaels isn't one to sugarcoat success secrets: Manage your own expectations. Pick a goal from the heart. And don't shield your ego from the inevitable hits. Here, more of her game-changing advice.

By Amy Spencer
Updated October 11, 2016
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| Credit: James White

"This has been a tough year," says Jillian Michaels, 42. That's because she's been doing "a Herculean amount" of work juggling her latest DVD, 10-Minute Body Transformation ($5; amazon.com); her newest book, Yeah Baby!: The Modern Mama's Guide to Mastering Pregnancy, Having a Healthy Baby, and Bouncing Back Better Than Ever ($16; amazon.com), and her live show, An Evening with Jillian, which tours this spring. On top of that, she and her fiancée, Heidi Rhoades, are busy raising daughter Lukensia, 6, and son Phoenix, 4.

"There's one thing I noticed about my kids," says Jillian when we meet for coffee in Malibu, Calif. She's wearing ripped jeans, flip-flops, and a Black Sabbath T-shirt with sleeves rolled at the shoulders, revealing those fierce arms. When Heidi took the kids away for a week, Jillian dived so deeply into work that she was fried by the time they came home. "And that's when I thought, 'Maybe, Jillian, as much as you moan about how hard it is, your kids balance you out.'"

Over her iced Americano, Jillian explains how she has learned that in every aspect of life—diets, workouts, career, and parenting—success lies not in the all or nothing but in the balance in between.

You have a new book about pregnancy. What's your best advice for bouncing back after pregnancy—or another hiatus, like an injury or the holidays?

The key is not to take a hiatus. But a hiatus also needs to be redefined. A lot of people look at it as letting it all go. No. It's asking, "What is it that you can control?" We can always control what we consume, so that's a massive piece of the pie. And the other key is to be proactive. My rotator cuff is blown out? OK, I'm gonna be doing step-ups and squats. It's a mentality we have—especially in America—of all or nothing, black or white. We're like, "If I can't do something 100 percent, I'm out."

Why do you think that is, that we're often so all or nothing with our health?

Because the gray area in life is the most challenging, on an emotional and a psychological level. That's where you have to process the good and the bad of everything; that's where the feelings exist. The middle is the answer to everything. If somebody asked me, "What is the secret of life?" I would say, "Middle."


Jillian's wearing: Dsquared2 tux ($2,290, dsquared2.com); SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker heels ($350, nordstrom.com).

And if someone didn't keep up their fitness during a hiatus?

If you have thrown it all away, the great news is, yeah, tomorrow's a new day—but it's a longer road with a steeper pitch. So if you want to bounce back better than ever, it has to be managed during the hiatus: You have to eat a certain way, sleep enough, and maintain a certain level of fitness.

If you could go back and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would you say?

First would be legal advice. Because I promise you that if you become successful in any area, you're gonna get bullets shot in your direction. But it's interesting: When I was 20, we worshipped the Maria Shrivers and Suze Ormans and Diane Sawyers. But now, with the younger generation, sometimes I think to myself, "I've swam in this ocean, kid. I know where all the sharks are. Why would you not want help?" On one project, I talked with a girl who said, "I have questions about this and am open to help." Other people I got on the phone with were just so arrogant and unaware, and I was like, "Ugh, you have no idea what's coming." The millennial generation is as black-and-white as it gets: Yes, there are definitely kids out there who have a sense of entitlement, but I also see some who are unbelievably diligent and inspired and saving the planet.

What are the positive qualities we can all borrow from millennials when it comes to better lives and careers?

What I like about millennials—and I hope this doesn't get taken the wrong way—but I like that they don't subscribe to rules per se. They're not going to work in the cubicle for free, and we're like, "How dare you?" But at the same time, if they pull that off, then bravo! If you break the rules and it works for you and you're not a sociopath hurting other people? Good for you. These kids are the ultimate fake-it-till-you-make-it generation.

How can the rest of us gain that kind of confidence? What should we do to overcome our fear of failure?

First, you have to establish an emotional connection to the idea, because to take those kinds of risks, the goal has to be worth it. You have to feel capable of achieving the goal. So you ask yourself: What is the goal? And is it worth it to you to put yourself through the sacrifices and the hardship? And then learn everything that you can, because what you don't know is scarier than what you do. When you take informed actions, you mitigate risk, and when you mitigate risk, you feel more comfortable. But misinformed action is a disaster. Informed action and intention will usually yield positive results. So you get the bumps, you get the bruises, and you say, "This is great; this is how I learn." And that's when they say success is a matter of attrition—for those who can essentially take an ego hit, fix it up, and go back in. Patience and fortitude.


Jillian's wearing: Narcisco Rodriguez top ($1,295, neimanmarcus.com). Koral leggings ($88, koral.com). Via Spiga heels ($195, nordstrom.com).

That part about feeling capable: What if we start out strong and then some little doubts start creeping in?

Small steps. Any long-term goal breaks down monthly, then weekly, then daily, then immediately. So educate yourself about the first small step, take the step and then see where you're at. Gradually, you'll define yourself by how you've achieved it. Conversely, I've taken some of the worst hits, where I feel like I'm in the ring with Muhammad Ali. And I've taken a lot of punches, but I'm still standing. Even if you face a setback, you'll see that if you can tolerate this, you can tolerate more of it. It's like what I was talking to my daughter about when she was afraid of her first day of school.

What was your advice to your daughter?

I was like, "Let's look back on your life." She's Haitian, so I said, "You lived through one of the most intense natural disasters on the planet. And on top of that, you had to wait two years for Mommy and I to find you. You are the strongest kid. You've been through all this, and you think you can't handle your first day of school in Malibu?" I also told her, "I get it—you're scared. It's gonna be uncomfortable, honey, but I promise you: There will be good in with the bad, and that's what you're gonna focus on. There's probably gonna be one kid you don't like or who won't like you, but a lot of people are awesome, and I bet you'll make a bunch of friends." She went to school and came home happy, happy, happy, and it was awesome.

That's great advice for the rest of us, too, because so much of our experience is based on our expectations. How do you manage your expectations?

Expectation is the root of misery! So I walk into everything expecting the worst and prepare to be surprised. Some people are like, "Can't you be positive?" But I've learned to go in cautiously and carefully, and if it turns out great? Wonderful! The goal is to go in open with zero expectations. It is about trying to wipe the slate and be present.


Jillian's wearing: Sonia Rykiel dress ($2,880, saksfifthavenue.com).

Let's talk body. If we want healthy bodies to go with our healthy attitudes, how can we make our comfort foods cleaner this winter?

There's a million ways: Use olive oil with your green beans, or mash cauliflower instead of potatoes, right? But I'd be the first one to tell you to have the mashed potatoes. I respect your position if you have reasons for a specific diet, but I've seen someone say they're vegan one day and Paleo the next, and it's like, "Are you kidding me?!" Again, it's too black-and-white. I like people to think of their calorie allowance as dollars to spend. So if I have 2,000 calories to "spend" in a day on food, I'm going to allow 20 percent of those calories to go to mashed potatoes, a glass of wine, a burger. The bottom line is: Fat is stored energy, no matter what you eat. Bears just eat fish, but they pack fat on for hibernation! If you're eating too many calories, you'll store them as fat.

Do you have any advice for how we can control food cravings?

It's all about controlling your environment. So if you know you're going to eat too many chips when you go to a Mexican restaurant, control it in advance. Instead of letting them bring the chips, Heidi and I say, "Can we get cucumber slices with the guacamole?" It's delish, and you save a ton of calories. Of course, another trick that works most of the time is the 15-minute rule.

What's the 15-minute rule?

You may think you need more of something, but usually you're good in the moment because it hasn't caught up to you. So in 15 minutes, if you still need more of it, have it.

Any food you're currently obsessed with?

I'm obsessed with chili peppers. I put them on everything—eggs, cream cheese, burgers, pasta, everything. I'm an animal. I like my food to punch me in the face. I put them on avocado toast—like, a piece of whole-grain bread, Ezekiel or Dave's Killer bread, mashed avocado, chia seeds, little bit of lemon, little bit of olive oil, mash it up.

Do you have any advice on shape-up resolutions?

Use this time to educate yourself. Because if you start a diet you don't know anything about—and "diet" is such a bad word now. Some people are like, "I don't want to hear the word 'diet' or 'calories,' and I don't want to talk about the scale." But if someone has 50 pounds to lose, you need to utilize the scale as a tool to see how your diet is working.

So you're still OK with using the word "diet"?

Yes. It's not about being skinny, I agree, but being healthy involves a certain body weight. So if you have weight to lose, you have to ask yourself the right questions: Are you really going to do this workout, or would you be happier taking a barre class? Is the diet palatable for you? There are 800-calorie diets, but if I followed a diet that was only 800 calories, I would be dead! So what's going to work for you—intense short-term results? Or a more moderate program? Know yourself. It's what works best for you.

Time for a pep talk with Jillian!

Having a self-defeating thought? Let Jillian guide you through it:

Self-defeating thought #1: "Ugh, I overate. I'm so weak!"
Jillian says: "It's so typical for women to think, 'I have to be perfect.' What would even make you think that that is possible? All right, you took two steps back—so take three steps forward! Work out for 20 minutes more tomorrow. This moment is just one component of your balance. It's all part of a much bigger picture."

Self-defeating thought #2: "I still have 20 minutes of this workout left? Are you kidding me? I wanna stop!"
Jillian says: "Here's what I ask myself in that position: What is the long-term goal of the work I'm putting in now? What's your purpose? Like, my purpose is to live to be a centenarian, to be active with my kids, to wear a bikini, to wear skinny jeans—so in 20 more minutes, I'll get that much closer to something that is meaningful for me. Work with purpose is passion. Work without purpose is punishing."

Self-defeating thought #3: "I hate my body. I wish I could fit into my old jeans."
Jillian says: "On one hand, I believe no matter where your health is at, you can reclaim it, for the most part. But on the other hand, you're gonna get old. That's just life. So start living in your vulnerability by reframing it: 'This is me aging, and here's what's beautiful about it.'"

Photography by James White. Styling by Karen Shapiro. Hair by Chloe Francke. Makeup by Paige Padgett/Cloutier Remix. Manicure by Tracy Clemens at Opus Beauty using Dior Vernis.